‘I am dealing with people and not with things.’

My daughter’s teacher had a quiet word after school about how she gets upset and declares, ‘I can’t do’ Maths. As we walked away, my daughter covered her ears, shut her eyes and half shouted, ‘I know what you were talking about!’ Her teacher only wants to help. It is especially important just now as they head for the SATS at the end of Year Two. That’s when the Government start putting children into categories. Parents won’t necessarily know these SATS results, but we will know if our children are above or below the ‘expected standard’. And the results are used again at the end of Year Six: “to measure the school’s progress score.” (gov.uk.)

Children notice. They notice their own level and each other’s. Though results are not directly given, children start putting themselves into categories. Hence they might believe they are deficient in some way. If they feel deficient, they are likely to be passive and bored, burdened by the compulsion to memorise. For those children, school will become (at best) a drag.

Paulo Freire was “known for his adult literacy programs in impoverished communities and for his classic early text: Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” (Oxford Research Encyclopedias.)  Freire noticed that the opinion of teachers becomes internalised by students. He worked in South America in the 1960’s alongside radical Christians, believers in liberation theology, teaching peasants to read in order to “raise consciousness, understand their own oppression and recognise that you don’t have to be passive and oppressed.” (Noam Chomsky, 2013.) Freire explains the effect of a teacher’s opinion on a person: “They call themselves ignorant and say the ‘professor’ is the one who has the knowledge and to whom they should listen.” (Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 1970, p. 37.)

British schoolchildren may not be oppressed to the same degree as peasants in 1960’s Brazil. But our test-based system does not inspire many with curiosity; we do not teach children to be critical, to think for themselves. “Passing tests doesn’t begin to compare with searching and enquiring and pursuing topics that engage us and excite us.” (Chomsky, 2012.)

Each six or seven year-old achieves a certain amount at the end of Year Two depending on their ability or interest, but also depending on their level of disadvantage and how they feel that day. The situation is particularly bad for poor children (who are often hungry at school nowadays) and tired children. It could be bad for a girl who expects to fail in Maths. They are given a level, which will then colour their experience for the following four years: ‘everyone at my table is bad at Maths’; ‘the ones who could do it went out into the hall.’ The results of the SATS taken at the end of Year Six stay with children right up until GCSEs.

This week Ofsted, in their great beneficence, decided to stop using test results as one of the four main areas of inspection. They have noticed the problem: “the new quality section would focus on the curriculum taught within a school, rewarding those that offer pupils a broad range of subjects.” (Guardian, 2018) How visionary! But our education system is still entirely based on testing: SATS at the end of years Two and Six; GCSE preparation begins at 14; most schools I have worked in also test throughout Key Stage Three.

Ofsted’s Chief Inspector has never been a teacher! “She previously spent more than 15 years in strategy consulting, finance and investment at KPMG, Kleinwort Benson, Mercer Management Consulting and Nomura International.” (gov.uk.) My guess is, she doesn’t really understand how continual testing manacles teachers. Teachers cannot waste much school time on the curiosity of an individual student, the class or themselves.

In independent schools (I briefly worked in one) it is possible to offer a varied curriculum that allows children to work beyond the test, to study subjects that have no connection with the test, to take part in enriching extra-curricular activities: to learn for the sake of it. Sussex House, a top prep-school for Eton (londonpreprep.com) lists “Architectural Modelling”, “Mandarin” and “Jazz Ensemble” among their activities (Sussex House). In independent schools there are smaller classes; teachers with a higher level of education tend to be employed because the pay is much better; teachers have a decent amount of preparation time. It’s not fair!

If ‘quality of education’ is going to be offered in state schools, teachers must be freed from the constraints of constant testing. I want to stress that the teachers I know do their best to protect children from the worst effects of tests, but they still have to prepare them for the racecourse.

I am not proposing we abolish all tests. We just need to recognise their limitations: they are a measure of what a person has committed to memory and how well they can prove it. They are probably most useful in factual subjects; I have found GCSE and A-level English examinations unreliable measures of a student’s understanding or ability to think for themselves. But that’s a conversation for another day.

In primary school, at least, children could be encouraged to discover for themselves within a framework set by their teacher or school. Bruce Alberts (Editor-in-Chief of ‘Science’) is involved in improving the teaching of Maths and Science in American schools. He argues that encouraging children to discover and to think is far superior to making them learn lists of information. I will quote him at length:

“Inquiry-based science curricula for children ages 5 to 13 have been undergoing
development and refinement… These curricula require that students engage in active investigations, while a teacher serves as a coach to guide them to an understanding of one of many topics. This approach takes advantage of the natural curiosity of young people…can be highly effective in increasing a student’s reasoning and problem-solving skills. In addition, because communication is emphasized, inquiry-based science teaching has been shown to increase reading and writing abilities.”  (Science, 2008.)

I can imagine an equivalent English class in which seven-year-olds were allowed to read (with help if needed) from a selection of books and discuss them with one another in a seminar. There would be no worksheet and no judgement.

There is so much tests don’t measure: thought, curiosity, joy, hunger. Most teachers know that.

‘moanday, tearsday…’

Knowing my daughter’s education was beyond my control felt odd when she first started in reception. After two years I’m used to that – most of the time. Apart from when she has to read an eye-wateringly dull book; or when I ask ‘what did you do at school today?’ – ‘I can’t remember. Nothing can I have a snack?’

Who is in control? It’s complicated. First Blair’s government – in 2002 – then Gove – in 2010 – with the introduction of academies and free schools, altered everything. I will identify who pulls which strings and ask whether we want our children to be their puppets.

Teachers in maintained schools are weak. A teacher is constantly observed and managed, pressured to meet targets. Almost all the content at my daughter’s maintained school is set by those at the Department for Education who write the National Curriculum, though teachers work late at home and on weekends to prepare their own resources. Boring reading books teachers dutifully issue exist because they are useful for measuring how near, or far, a child is from the Government’s ‘expected level’, not because the stories engender a love of reading.

How much power does a teacher at an academy or free school have? Let’s look at how these institutions are run (the same rules apply to both). Academies, like private schools, don’t have to follow the National Curriculum. There are only some stipulations: “Academies must teach a broad and balanced curriculum including English, Maths and Science. They must also teach religious education.” (gov.co.uk).

Academies and free schools benefit from extra funding: up to ten percent more, which used to be held back by local authorities for provision of extra services (BBC, 2016). This is part of the reason for the explosion of academies in recent years: “At January 2017, 68.8 per cent of secondary pupils and 24.3 per cent of primary pupils in England were attending academies.” (House of Commons Library, 2017).

The Government describes academies as “publicly funded independent schools.” (gov.co.uk). The structure of their governance mimics that of a business. ‘Members’, at the top of the hierarchy, are like shareholders without the profit:  “shareholders, like members, have a real interest in the success of a company…members will judge ‘success’ against how much the trustees are doing to achieve the charitable objects of the charity.” (National Governance Association, 2018). The government recommend there should be at least five members, but there can be as few as three, (RSA, 2017).

Beneath members are ‘trustees’ who run the academy, like school governors,  though they have additional responsibilities, such as finance and admissions. The trustees are not supposed to be the same people as the members, but this does happen (Schoolsweek, 2017).

In multi-academy trusts, ‘local governing bodies’ are delegated responsibilities by trustees. LGBs can control one or more academies.

Overseeing all these academies, supposedly, are regional schools commissioners. Though, when they were set up to take over this responsibility from the Department for Education a leaked document revealed how little power they actually have: “ministers are advised that plans to devolve oversight to new regional schools commissioners will expose how little sway the department has over existing free schools and academy schools in England.” (Guardian, 2014).

In academies teachers work under an iron rod. The control exerted over teachers in maintained schools is frail by comparison! When a school becomes an academy, there is no longer the requirement for a teacher governor (or trustee in the new jargon) (NUT). Decisions are made by trustees who may have no experience, many of whom are appointed by the academy trust or its sponsors.

Academies do not have to honour statutory teachers’ pay and conditions. Teachers could have very little sick pay; they might be required to be in the building for long hours; even heads have been ‘ordered to leave’ with little warning, (Guardian, 2017).  Respect for teachers, the acknowledgement that they care about their students and usually do more than their contracted hours, is gone.

In 2010 Gove rushed the Academies Bill through parliament using a procedure that some claim is usually reserved for anti-terror laws, (BBC, 2010). By 2016, nearly a third of the teachers who joined in 2010 had left; Schools cannot recruit enough teachers (NUT, quoting DfE figures).  It isn’t surprising that so many teachers are desperate to escape.

The problem with academies is that they are extremely hierarchical – essentially mini-oligarchies. Members and trustees lay down the law and they are answerable to almost nobody; unless their school fails an Ofsted inspection, but by then damage has been done. Mary Bousted (General Secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers) commented this year: “Since 2010 the government has spent at least £149.6m on the setup costs and capital funding for 66 free schools, university technical colleges and studio schools in England that have either closed, partially closed or failed to open at all.” She suggests that the £149.6 million could have been better spent, (Guardian, 2018). (A salient point given the protest of hundreds of headteachers at Westminster on Friday, BBC, 2018.)

Academies have led to corruption. There have been several cases of members bending the rules for their own benefit: Ian Cleland, chief executive and founding member of the Academies Transformation Trust, oversaw the disappearance of millions from the trust’s reserves over four years, was put on temporary leave, then used his powers to sack the chairman and have himself re-instated, (Schoolsweek, 2017).

I am an escapee. I have worked in both a free school and a recently converted academy. In the free school, I was conscious of the incompetence of trustees. They didn’t think there needed to be a head of English, so I began with no scheme of work. The experienced head could influence decisions, but was ultimately subordinate to trustees and members.

There is some hope in co-operative schools. Championed at one stage by Conservative, Francis Maude, and now Angela Rayner in her speech last week at Labour Party Conference: “And where parents and staff want to go further in launching and leading their own schools, our own movement already has an answer: co-operative schools.” (Labour.org.uk, 2018). Co-operatives provide a way for teachers and parents to take more control of schools.

Mervyn Wilson (Principal of the Co-operative College) wrote one of four essays in a collection commissioned in 2013 on the subject: “Today’s generation of co-operative schools…provide opportunities for new models of ownership involvement and community engagement, and an alternative to the rapid development of the top-down command and control chains.” (Making it Mutual, 2013).

Greater involvement of teachers in running schools is badly needed.  Maybe a new kind of management would help teachers dread Moanday less. If I were involved, I would have something to say about reading books.





‘Does it guess easy? It must have a competition with us, my preciouss!’

What is creativity and how do you acquire it? Is it innate, learned, or is there magic juice you can squeeze on a child’s eyelids to engender it? My daughter likes to make things up, she talks a lot. People have called her creative; but her fluency with words comes from knowing a lot of stories.

There is a battle going on over creativity among those who control British education. Broadly speaking some (such as Sir Ken Robinson and Guy Claxton) believe we must favour teaching, or enabling, creativity itself – allowing children the space to create. Whereas others (Michael Gove, Daisy Christodoulou) think it is vital that children commit detailed knowledge of subjects to memory.

To pin down what these powerful people mean by creativity, let’s use the definition agreed on by Claxton and Christodoulou in this revealing debate, ‘Traditional education kills creativity’: creativity is “being able to come up with a fresh idea when you need one.” Such ability is certainly useful to an adult or child in any situation. Good. So, how do children get to be like that?

The battle is largely over how children become creative. A dominant view since the 1960’s has been that retaining knowledge is lesser than, and separate from, creativity. The idea is expressed in the pyramids of Maslow and Dale, which are used on PGCSE courses. Maslow sees “creative activities” as one of the highest human needs. Dale describes listening to a lecture, and reading, as “passive”; he claims little is retained from these methods. Maslow and Dale’s pyramids have been attacked by those who think the emphasis of education must be on learning knowledge. Paul Kirschner (Professor at the Open University of the Netherlands) points out that the two pyramids are based on “no empirical data.” He says, “They are something we believe and not something we know.” (YouTube, 2014)

The 2007 English National Curriculum focused on skills and processes rather than specific knowledge. Then, in 2014, the Government overhauled the curriculum, so that the focus was instead on knowledge: “the new curriculum…concentrates on “the essential knowledge and skills every child should have” (BBC, 2014) The overhaul was down to Gove, who wanted “access to knowledge” to be the focus of education, (GOV.UK, 2014).

I agree with Christodoulou who argues that, rather than being separate, knowledge and creativity are intertwined: you can’t be creative without large amounts of knowledge stored in your long-term memory, (Christodoulou, Seven Myths About Education, 2014, p. 21). My daughter’s so-called ‘creativity’, her ability to make things up, comes from the stories I (the ex-English teacher) have read to her, stuff she reads herself and films. After I read aloud the chapter of The Hobbit about Gollum, she began making up riddles, and begging me to make up riddles for her to solve. What you absorb and remember becomes your thoughts; where else could thought come from?

If someone were to fill my daughter’s mind with Mathematics, she might become creative with numbers. In reality, she often can’t recognise a two digit number. I feel her confusion like a cold draught, a reminder of my own threadbare knowledge.

Those who react with horror to Christodoulou’s arguments have belittled her approach as Gradgrindian. But I am not convinced that Dickens would approve of jettisoning facts from education. In his great biography, Peter Ackroyd has described Dickens’ conventional education of his own children: “There is no sense in which Dickens brought up his own children to be “rebels” against the system which he himself so consistently attacked.” (Ackroyd, Dickens, 1999, p. 612). Dickens even published factual work for children: ‘A Child’s History of England’ (1853). The problem with Gradgrind is not his knowledge, but his cruelty and that he serves a system rather than individual children.

Ackroyd repeatedly refers to Dickens’ belief in the power of children’s intelligence and the importance of childhood memories in adult life. Dickens wrote, “it would be difficult to overstate the intensity and accuracy of an intelligent child’s observation.” (Ackroyd, p. 16); Scrooge remembers his childhood reading as a source of redemptive meaning when confronted with the Ghost of Christmas Past.

What is dangerous (and Gradgrindian) about our current education system is the concern for data over individuals. Individual children are judged according to where the Curriculum expects them to be. Success is a graph that climbs gradually upward. Teachers are made to judge children according to their data; the success of their own teaching by students’ performance in continuous tests. Children’s idiosyncrasies and the unreliability of data is ignored.

Individuals have natural proclivities; I am no psychologist, I believe this to be true based on my experience of teaching. During my PGCE an academic argued in a lecture that anyone one could have been Mozart given the correct environment; she was laughed at by the audience. A child with ability in a certain subject is limited by the National Curriculum because all must be more or less close to “the expected standard” (GOV.UK). The expectation is far too low for many and too high for others.

If teachers were allowed to forget the ‘expected standard’ and the next test for more than ten minutes, they might notice immense potential that is wasted. Think of how much Hebrew an average Jewish girl might learn for a Bat Mitzvah; how many languages any child can pick up if they need to; how quickly children are able to work technology without being taught. John Taylor Gatto concludes, “after thirty years in the public school trenches..genius is as common as dirt.” (Weapons of Mass Instruction, 2009, p. 23).

We put fences up, keep children in pens of expected learning, and do not recognise when they could go further. My daughter has just been sent home with some level 12 reading books: not as bad as level 9, but, still, dry as dust compared with The Hobbit. I worry that the tediousness of the school books will erode her natural enjoyment of reading.

The business model that has been fashionable for some time in the public sector makes no sense in schools. Teachers are hooked on so-called progress. We count our data as if it were gold coins, forgetting that targets are set by people in an office somewhere: targets do not necessarily make sense for individuals. We tend to forget that our numbers may falsify, limit or simply be irrelevant.








‘How the hell do you hope to get a job when you never listen to anythin’?’

For two years, my daughter and I have been painfully climbing the Oxford Reading Tree (reading books used in 80% of UK primary schools). I agree that readers designed to improve literacy step by step are needed; but I wonder why the pace has to be so unbearably slow.

Before the summer holidays we were on level 9: not as mind-numbing as levels 1-5 but, still, not riveting. Then, through boredom over the summer, she was forced into reading whatever was around. I’m not suggesting I have an unusual child, but, when no one would read to her on a long afternoon in our TV-less living room, she started reading real books to herself. Of course it was hard at first, and she guessed a lot, but – as children do – she got better fast. I’m sure many would. Now the world is open to her in small print – illustrated encyclopedias; novels with proper characters who think; even at one point in a cafe, an article in the Guardian about boa constrictors escaping into London streets and eating pigeons. More intriguing than “Wilma’s mum came round. She wanted to take everyone swimming.” (Super Dog, Level 9)

Steady, measurable, progress looks better on a school’s graphs. If one student’s stagnation due to computer game addiction makes the data look bad, so could a giant leap made by another out of boredom. I was a secondary school English teacher for eight years. (‘Can you explain to me please, Miss Glickstein, how you have added value to this learner?’) ‘Value Added’ measures the progress of each student from one test to another. It is a way of organising and of reading data, which feeds Ofsted and national figures, so schools can be compared: “Someone who is clever to start with is compared with other clever children – so the result does not depend on how well they do in outright terms, but how much they have improved, whatever their ability.” (BBC, 2004)  The idea is that all students should progress gradually upwards on a trajectory that fits how clever they are deemed to be. And what is the point of the comparison? All UK governments are desperate to show they are dealing with failing schools and teachers: that education is working.

What I have never understood is why teachers and parents passively accept the standards by which we test schoolchildren from the age of six. As if the standards were handed down to Kenneth Baker on a stone tablet by God himself and every child’s ability has been accurately judged by the system!

We dumbly study our graphs, believing they are fact. When SATS began, we had obviously forgotten Dickens’ vitriolic caricature of Gradgrind, industrialist turned MP, whose mania for facts is based on a belief that England requires children raised only on fact and measured at every point – “…a rule and a pair of scales…ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to.” (Hard Times, 1854).

If the pace of study is too slow, many become excruciatingly bored. I have seen it happen a lot. A boy in Year Seven, for instance, who was reading ‘The Last of the Mohicans’ was recorded as having read nothing. (The system recorded numbers of words read using an app on the kids’ phones that tracked their progress through books on the system.) The books and science magazines this boy liked weren’t on the system and so he registered as disengaged. He had none of the glory and prizes awarded to those who clocked up the most words. His mum felt sorry for him: she typed a list of what he had read and brought it to me at parents’ evening hoping I could change his record. But the system only recognised books that were on it. I was forced to look into the boy’s face and explain, ‘you can’t necessarily measure yourself by what school reports say.’ By the end of Year Seven he had thrown a chair at another boy and been temporarily excluded from class.

The intense daily frustration of children stuck learning too little too slowly is only one of the problems our system does not recognise. We must question whether we want a uniform national curriculum at all. Look up John Taylor Gatto. (New York City Teacher of the Year on three occasions. He quit teaching on the OP ED page of the Wall Street Journal in 1991 while still New York State Teacher of the Year, claiming that he was no longer willing to hurt children.) Gatto convincingly argues that American education is deliberately designed and used to “dumb people down, to demoralise them, to divide them from one another, and to discard them if they don’t conform.” (Weapons of Mass Instruction, 2009) In my experience, the motives of those in charge are not so clear cut, but it is strange that we are willing to accept what our children have to study unquestioningly.

It has ever been the case that education is defined by those in charge, who may or may not believe that children should be taught to think for themselves. Orwell, two years after he worked as a teacher, imagined a teacher who manages to do just this in A Clergyman’s Daughter: “Quite quickly and easily Dorothy broke them in to the habit of thinking for themselves”. Only – poor Dorothy! – she soon understands the depressing reality: “No job is more fascinating than teaching if you have a free hand at it. Nor did Dorothy know, as yet, that that ‘if’ is one of the biggest ‘ifs’ in the world.” (A Clergyman’s Daughter, 1935) We can never assume that a steadily climbing graph illustrates the nation’s children moving towards an end that we, personally, agree is valid.

Teachers have limited freedom. They are not encouraged to design their own curricula, nor to vary the work each child does. Differentiation usually means varying the same task for different students, not choosing tasks to suit individuals, because everyone is prepared for the same tests. (Though some poor souls are condemned to the Foundation tier.)

Teachers imprison children with tests and judgements from an extremely early age. Many teachers hate doing it: they become cynical, unhappy; children learn to adapt to the system or live a life of frustration. Teachers ought to be free to respond to individuals; boys and girls should be encouraged to think from the outset about what the purpose of their education is. My daughter has asked if they will let her choose reading books from home in future; I’m not sure it’s up to her teacher.






‘The system will still need you to compose symphonies’

I listen to music with my daughter on YouTube and Spotify; she likes YouTube because of the videos. I choose the songs. Often I choose music by written and, or, performed by women: Patti Smith, Nina Simone, Eliza Carthy, The Chordettes, 4 Non Blondes, the Be Good Tanyas, Joni Mitchell, Joan Armatrading, Sandy Denny, Aretha Franklin. (Click on the links and have a party!)

Part of the point of this has been to let her listen to music, but to avoid inappropriately adult lyrics. Also to let her look at different hues, shapes and styles of women: people she can admire who aren’t stick thin and gyrating in their underwear. An inoculation against the MTV effect.

I mention MTV because, when I worked in a boarding school – ten years ago now – that is what the girls (aged 11 – 18) played constantly in their common room. I watched with them. I remember a few particular stinkers – Britney Spears ‘Piece of Me’ and Girls Aloud ‘Can’t Speak French’. But there were thousands of videos; millions of closeups of gleaming quivering thighs and pouting parted mouths. I hated the way the younger girls drank it in with their eyes; I wasn’t surprised to hear from a parent that, after nine months at school, their twelve year old was adamant she needed a bikini wax. Kids probably watch more music online now, but I don’t imagine the demands made on female performers have changed.

Recently, I played my daughter Mama Cass, Make Your Own Kind of Music. A woman with a voice to make you cry, who proves you can be lovely and ignore modern rules about how women on TV must look. But, as I was searching for the song, the search algorithm suggested Paloma Faith’s version. The difference between the two exposes how conformist modern musicians are required to be. The video makes pathetic gestures at illustrating the meaning of the original words: a whispered voice-over at the beginning hints that the singer is unconventional; they put her in a couple of quirky outfits – sci-fi style and mardi gras. But the outfits are still skin tight, with stilettos, and Faith has a gym body. She is also advertising Skoda cars, which I guess doesn’t leave those making the video infinite room for creativity. Individuality, in the Paloma Faith video, becomes just another manufactured style – like the ready-made ‘punk’ and ‘artist’ accessories you can buy in Topshop.

My daughter (what a surprise!) spotted the Paloma Faith version and wanted that. She knew I didn’t; she could tell this was the sort of video other people in her class might recognise. And why shouldn’t she want that? It’s natural for a child to be fascinated by the big wide world, and it’s not a crime to want to fit in. Also, I want my daughter, ultimately, to decide for herself who she is. Listening to loud music as a method of scorning one’s parents is a traditional way for children to develop an identity (though maybe not at the age of six).

But it isn’t the 1990’s. We aren’t in Kansas anymore. What I found disturbing and insidious about this particular disagreement with my child was that I was in combat with an algorithm. (Not one that predicts what else you want to hear based on your data-set, but still – a mathematical program as oppose to a person.) I was not the stereotypical mother who fights a futile war against perceived corruption coming from other people. The corruption was being suggested to me, in my own home, by an algorithm.

Algorithms now shape what we watch and listen to – 60 percent of films watched on Netflix are recommended by Netflix’s own algorithm (Kevin Slavin, NPR, 2015). Kevin Slavin (Founding Chief Science and Technology Officer at The Shed, NY) argues that we’re living in a world designed for – and increasingly controlled by – algorithms: you can watch his extremely popular Ted Talk to learn about this. Slavin says we need to use algorithms in conjunction with human intelligence rather than allow them to run unchecked. He gives examples of algorithms ‘with no adult supervision’ causing all sorts of problems, such as insane prices on Amazon, stock market crashes, useless traffic control systems and worse.

I am worried about young people being shaped by algorithms rather than by other human beings. Because, as far as my limited understanding goes, algorithms create symmetrical mathematical outcomes. I don’t want my daughter to be sorted into a neat category of young people who like a certain type of thing, then pushed further along that same road along with all the other young people in the same category. Especially if that category is girls who like girly stuff. I don’t want a computer to suggest she listen to hours of sexy pop music and watch endless chick flicks starring skinny actresses with big breasts, whose acting consists of wiggling their buttocks and, or, eyebrows.

I don’t let her control the computers at the moment, but she is already under the influence of other children who are in categories, and their parents who have also been sorted by their computers.

Maybe our children will never have CD collections. Browsing, swapping compilations and stealing a friend’s CDs will no longer be normal ways to develop a personal taste. How can young people today develop their taste? A music critic for the New York Times, Ben Ratliff, recently published ‘Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen to Music Now’, in which he offers ways to appreciate music in a world where we are fed playlists by algorithms – “At the very least we should try to listen better than we are being listened to.” A fair point – learning to listen carefully, with appreciation, is a way to combat the meaninglessness that can come from rivers of music, which an algorithm decides is your thing.

But discernment isn’t enough for children who might never encounter anything apart from what an algorithm spews out. I don’t have a good solution to that problem, but I  am going to hang on to my tapes, CDs and records. Because my children might one day go crazy and want to listen to music that is not at all connected to what they already like.





‘The Chimes of Freedom Flashing’

I have always been surprised by the enthusiasm with which other parents seem to relish it when their children have the same stuff – and like the same stuff – as everyone else at school: ‘I sent him off for the first day of term with his new little Star Wars backpack and he just looked so lovely.’ I nod and agree: he probably did look lovely with his face shiny clean, excited about seeing all the people in his class again. But (I think to myself) why was the Star Wars backpack part of his loveliness? I have never understood that impulse in other parents: to enjoy it when their children seem similar to other children. The question always comes back to me when it’s time to buy new uniform and my daughter desperately wants to conform: ‘I want the same shoes Mia has’; ‘I like those, so-and-so has those.’

I notice in myself an opposite impulse: when everyone else’s child has something, or likes something, my impulse is to avoid it. I used to expect there would be other parents who shared my suspicion of the crowd, but it always appears I’m the only one at the school gate feeling that way.

By the way, I welcome comments on this from readers with different points of  view – I want to question myself. My suspicion of the crowd is not always good for my daughter: if I reject everything that ‘everyone else’ likes purely because of the popularity – regardless of what the object of their approval is – then, to my daughter, my rejection seems meaningless.

But following the crowd without questioning is not right either.

You may find this a jump: to go straight from Star Wars backpacks to Nazis, but bear with me. I wonder if my stubborn suspicion of the crowd was absorbed from my Jewish father who grew up in the 1930’s and 40’s. (Yes, he was pretty old when I was born.) The thought, that it’s good for a child to follow a crowd because it’s fun to join in – and most kids want to join in – is obliterated if you think about Hitler’s electric popularity in 1930’s Germany and the success of the Hitler Youth movement. (My father, like all Jews of his generation, grew up constantly painfully aware that Nazi’s were real.)

Simone Weil, a Jewish philosopher who converted to Christianity, feared conformity. She explained this in a letter to a Catholic priest:

“I know that the moment I had before me a group of twenty young Germans singing Nazi songs in chorus, a part of my soul would instantly become Nazi. That is a very great weakness, but that is how I am…..I am afraid of the Church patriotism existing in Catholic circles.” (Waiting for God, 1950)

There are countless expressions of fear of conformity voiced by Jews at the time, and since; another Jew who has expressed such fear is Bob Dylan. But Weil’s is the most eloquent I know.

We could all do with a little fear conformity. Life is becoming more uniform. I often think of a famous old photograph of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez in 1963 standing next to a sign, which declares, ‘Protest against the rising tide of conformity‘. I have this poster permanently stuck in my head, because its sentiment is worryingly absent from the school gates. And I can hardly find in the media (correct me if I’m wrong).

Our modern Internet encourages us to think with the crowd. The word ‘like’ is shifting its meaning. We worry about how many likes we get for things we post (I try not to get sucked into that, but don’t always manage). We want others to like us; we list what we like. The word has gathered power, become a tyrant: we need likes to feel we exist; we use likes to guide us to truth; millions of likes are taken as evidence of truth.

I use a capital letter in ‘Internet’ to remind you that the current Internet used to be just one way of linking a network of computers out of many possible ways. The capital letter used to distinguish the one we ended up with from the others (New York Times, 2016). We should remember that the way our current Internet works is not inevitable and could be altered, so that it wouldn’t encourage people to think in crowds. Read, or watch, Jaron Lanier (writer, musician and virtual reality pioneer) for an explanation of why and how we “must undo” the way our Internet works. (Ted Talk, 2018) I implore you, click on this last link it’s essential to know about Lanier’s ideas.

Lanier is a Jew whose parents were a mother who survived a concentration camp and a father who had lost much of his family to pogroms, so perhaps Lanier has absorbed the same mid-20th Century Jewish suspicion of the crowd that I have. He has written and spoken about his high hopes for technology, as well as his fears about the Internet in its current form. I can’t summarise his ideas. One relevant point however is his observation that cat videos are more popular than dog videos. In the introduction to his book ‘Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now’, he suggests that we love cats because – unlike dogs – they cannot be trained, they “are still in charge”: “Oh, how we long to have that certainty not just about our cats but about ourselves! Cats on the internet are our hopes and dreams for the future of people on the internet.” (Lanier, 2018, p. 2)

So to get back to the Star Wars backpack. My daughter happens to be more into the sparkly-stereotypicalgirly-princessy-Disney kind of style most girls in her class like. I have my worries about the style, which I have written about in earlier posts. But please notice, both styles are conformist (and both powered by Disney).

Our Internet conditions us to care about what the crowd likes. But we would do well to learn from the horrific experience of Jews in the 20th Century: that we must always question the crowd. This month I will be thinking hard about they ways in which I want my daughter to conform when she goes back to school and the ways in which I don’t.


All the Hills Echoed

The shadow of William Blake passed over my local playground on the final afternoon of the summer term. A large group of parents congregated in the park after school ended at lunch time. Unchained children, aged five to eleven, were free to roam in a pack, while the adults sheltered in a patch of shade on the brow of the hill – almost out of sight. I sat from two until five, only seeing my daughter to supply her water, or snacks, or nag her about sun cream. By five o’clock, there were only four mothers left, a pile of wrappers and two hot, tired, grizzling babies. We stood up, collected the debris and moved threateningly towards our happy remaining children. ‘The only problem now is peeling them away,’ someone said. We smiled and rolled our eyes; I thought I heard Blake cough.

In ‘Songs of Innocence’ Blake delights in the ‘echoing green’. In ‘Nurse’s Song’, pleading children are allowed to roam free until dark – “The little ones leaped & shouted & laugh’d/ And all the hills ecchoed.” But the nurse of ‘Songs of Experience’ is ‘green and pale’, possibly jealous of the children, or weary; she says, “Your spring & your day are wasted in play,/ And your winter and night in disguise.”

We – the mothers hovering by the zip wire – shouted ‘five more minutes…’, ‘one more go’, ‘I have to make dinner’, ‘don’t push in!’ while our children did their best to ignore the intrusion. I became both of Blake’s nurses at once. I was weary from sitting in the heat and hungry; I knew my daughter would be instantly ‘too tired to walk’ on the uphill journey home. But I was also loath to drag her off, take away freedom, end the fun.

We control our children’s freedom to play; we all contain both of Blake’s nurses. But we – like our children – have lost the ‘echoing green’: we are separated from nature. In a 2012 report for The National Trust, Stephen Moss (nature writer, broadcaster and wildlife television producer) borrows a phrase from Richard Louv  in order to describe what is happening to our minds and bodies as a result of separation from nature – “Nature Deficit Disorder describes the human costs of alienation from nature, among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses.”

I feel this to be true for myself and for my children: when we are cut off from the natural world, it is more difficult for us to find joy. Our natural physical existence is a true source of joy: the sound of the wind, grass underfoot. Summer holidays are a chance for us to find such joy – packs of children charging around campsites, adults sitting for hours around barbecues, outdoor swimming pools jammed full of bodies.

For me, the nurse of Innocence usually wins: I want my daughter to play outside unfettered. But I am left with a problem – how can I  make that possible? Someone has to cook dinner and I will need to work again (when the baby is older). I can’t always sit in the park for three hours of an afternoon and I don’t always feel like spending half of my day with other parents making small talk. So it is difficult to find the time in an average day to enable her to play outside.

It also feels important that she is allowed to play without me breathing down her neck, which is even harder to manage. Relatively few children in England are ever allowed to play outside without adult supervision; the percentage of those allowed out alone is even lower for girls. A report commissioned by Natural England, conducted in association with Kings College London, found that “boys were slightly more likely than girls to take visits to the natural environment with no adults present (24% compared to 20%).” (Natural England, 2016, p.27)

Stephen Moss argues that it is important for children to play without excessive interference. Moss says that, “In a single generation since the 1970s, children’s ‘radius of activity’ – the area around their home where they are allowed to roam unsupervised – has declined by almost 90%”. He links the decline in freedom to “declining emotional resilience and the declining ability to assess risk, both vital life-skills in the development of which outdoor experience is vital.” Children need to be in control of their own decisions and their own experience; it is not enough just to take them to feed the ducks.

At a time when the mass media controls our children’s perception, and social media pressures them to conform, they need emotional resilience and they need to be able to make their own choices. Girls, especially, are in desperate need of self-confidence and self-reliance. I imagine that freedom to play outside would give my daughter space to develop away from the glare of a screen, and would give her time to enjoy her body without worrying about how she looks. I say ‘imagine’ because she doesn’t play outside alone yet, unless we go camping. She is only six, but I don’t know how I will let her go out alone when she is older.

At the moment, I read to her about playing outside alone. The experience of childhood freedom has been immortalised by countless writers who remember it. They may idealise, but the idealisation is beautiful. Lucy M. Boston, for example, in her series of children’s books from the 50’s:

“The sun had not yet pierced the haze of morning. The water was like a looking-glass with a faint mist of breath drying off it. The children felt it so bewitching that without even a discussion they turned downstream, drifting silently along, willing to become part of the river if they could.” (The River at Green Knowe, 1959)

But reading about life is not the same as living.

Children’s ability to delight in being their natural selves is what Blake values so highly. Blake’s nurse of Experience believes that our “winter and night” is wasted in “disguise”. Could the tablets and the smartphones and the TV be a kind of disguise – a place for our children to forget themselves? Perhaps the mental stress many teenagers experience is made worse by their never having learnt to notice and enjoy themselves and the natural world.

When children are lucky enough to have a playground, their play is fenced in and their parents stand around checking the time on their phones. And our hills echo only with the sound of motorways.